The Art of Early Talent Spotting

A picture of a butterfly hanging from a plant

Ever find yourself looking at a night sky and wondering why stars seem to glimmer or twinkle? As a source of light, why don’t they just shine continuously?

There’s a solid reason for the glimmer effect: as a star’s light penetrates our atmosphere, each single stream of light changes direction slightly due to changes in temperature and density of the Earth’s atmosphere. The star’s light almost travels a zigzag path before it reaches our point of vision, rather than giving a solid continuous signal if the Earth’s atmosphere wasn’t blocking or bogging it down.

To some extent, we can think of talent and organizations in a similar way because the very organizations that are thought to foster and nurture performance can also be barriers to our ability to spot talent and potential. The day-to-day performance requirements that we use to make decisions about critical issues such as evaluation, development, compensation, and promotion can cloud our ability to see the bursts of potential within our strongest talent.

So how do we increase our chances of success in spotting that next strong leader within the pool? No simple answers to this question, but being more mindful and systematic about how we look for talent is a strong strategic step in the right direction.

Stories abound about situations where individuals and groups that went on to great performance levels were passed over (or nearly overlooked) in the early stages of their careers. A 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky, for example, was almost overlooked when Canada was putting together its first team of young all-stars for the 1978 world junior championships in Montreal. Although the Soviet team won that year, the world junior championships nevertheless served as what some call Gretzky’s coming-out party.

“This was supposed to be a showcase for the 19-year-olds,” notes CBC sports writer Tim Wharnsby. “Back then, it was their draft year. But Gretzky stole the show. He won MVP honours with a tournament-leading eight goals and 17 points in six games, playing on a line with Tony McKegney and Wayne Babych.” As Wharnsby also points out, it was a fluke that Gretzky even made the team. “This was a kid only invited to try out after a knee injury to another player opened the door,” he said.

Shifting gears toward a very different context, Decca Records passed on The Beatles after an early audition in 1962, deciding instead to put money behind another group – Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Given the magnitude of the impact of The Beatles on the music industry, the Internet is ripe with stories about how this oversight could have happened under the leadership of Decca executive Dick Rowe, a very successful record producer. The Beatles were allowed to record a one-hour session of 15 different songs, including a mix of cover songs and some original Lennon/McCartney music. After consideration and review of the audition tape, Decca declined to finance a deal. “Guitar groups are on the way out,” Rowe reportedly said. “The Beatles have no future in show business.” Rowe, of course, denied being responsible for making the bad call. And other versions of this story attribute the decision to a more junior Decca employee. But whatever happened, we all know that things are clearer in a rear-view mirror.  And surely there must have been someone in the room who wanted to speak up and say, “Ummm, maybe we should give this a second listen?”

Fact is that talent isn’t typically easy to recognize in its early stages, and the challenges in distinguishing potential from performance aren’t new. That said, the increasing pace of change in most industries coupled with alternative opportunities from competing organizations means that most organizations can’t afford to overlook their emerging talent pool as casually as in the past. Just a few years ago, the financial crisis rippled into our talent pools and even A-players were worried enough about job security to ignore their company’s missteps and overlooks for promotions and opportunities. That was then. Now that many elements of business have stabilized and recovered, the war for talent is back on.

With the competitive nature of today’s global economy, plenty of smart companies understand the importance of building leadership pipelines. As my Ivey Business School colleague Tony Frost pointed out in an earlier IBJ Insight, leadership pipelines are much like energy sector pipelines. Building them successfully requires time, attention, and a significant commitment of financial resources. All the time, attention, and resources dedicated to leadership development will still be wasted if the quality of the product being piped isn’t what is in demand. Frost noted early action is critical.

“When developing a strong leadership pipeline, the first thing an organization must think about is the ‘product’ the pipeline will deliver, meaning it is important to identify and target employees with the most potential for leadership positions,” he said.

Frost’s blog focused on what it takes to build a healthy pipeline. The purpose of this post is to spur corporate talent scouts to focus more on how their organizations can systematically spot talent much earlier than the norm because developing strong effective leaders takes time. Keep in mind that the sooner the next potential leaders in your organization are identified, the more time you will have to develop them in a customized manner that fits the specific needs of your company’s market mission. Also remember that unidentified talent can get quickly frustrated and jump ship to competitors.

Spotting future leaders “early” means spotting them in their initial jobs and roles. This means looking for signs of potential that do not necessarily correlate with current performance metrics. In some situations, the key success factors that explain current performance might not only be less relevant for future success, they can sometimes work against future promotion and success. Since leadership potential isn’t necessarily embedded into many early jobs and roles where it can be easily demonstrated, we need processes to spot the “glimmers” of potential that manifest themselves in less than systematic ways. What do these glimmers look like? Ah, there’s the stickiness in the equation. To be clear, I’m not referring to “sticky” as in challenging as much as I’m referring to “sticky” in how sometimes you have a feeling or a hunch that you just can’t shake. For example, you come out of a meeting with your team of engineers and on the drive home you just can’t shake the feeling that Bob is thinking a little deeper than others on the team.

Everyone else was focused on meeting the project deadline at whatever cost, but Bob kept raising the issue of product quality and company reputation, you recall.

Or say you’re trying to polish a presentation while catching the subway home and find yourself repeatedly thinking about that meeting earlier in the day where Megan was questioning the company’s new strategic direction in light of the company values that had been rippled across the organization. “Sticky” in this situation refers to something hard to define or explain, but you just know there’s something there that’s worth investing the company’s time and resources to develop further.

We need systems that help organizations sort out those glimmers from the day-to-day noise in organizations. Systems that won’t ignore current performance, but will also flag bigger, deeper signals such as someone’s ability to master new skills, rapidly absorb knowledge and communicate it to others effectively, build lasting relationships, mobilize others to get things done, or see how different pieces of the corporate puzzle fit together. We are not talking about an exact science here. Similar to best practices in medicine, everyone involved in the process must understand that all cases will be somewhat different. In short, talent spotting probably leans more toward art than science. Even after 20 years in the talent-spotting game, Jack Welch insisted that he was still wrong about leadership calls around 20 per cent of the time. The point isn’t to be 100 per cent accurate. The point is to leverage more critical development time by looking for serious leadership potential while it’s in the glimmer stage, but understanding that glimmers aren’t constant in frequency or equal in brightness. Perhaps Oscar Wilde put it best.

“All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” he said.

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